Presenting presents in the present

Did you get or give a lot of “presents” for the holidays? Did you give or get a lot of “gifts”? And what’s the difference?

TL;dr answer: Not much. Once you read some of the history of each word, though, you may decide you prefer one over the other. (H/T: dictionary.com.)

The word “present” needs some context to make clear whether you are speaking of the current time or of a bauble. The original usage, though, did not include the concept of time. The Oxford English Dictionary says the first “present” meant “A person’s presence,” with a now-obsolete version, “in present,” to mean “into a person’s presence, esp. as an offering or gift.” That was early in the 13th century.

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’Twas Chaucer who introduced “present” as the concept of “the current time” about 1425, the OED says.

Pronunciation is also a clue as to whether “present” is being used as a noun/adjective or verb/adverb. The noun form is accented on the first syllable; the verb on the second. “I present you with this present” sounds better than it looks.

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“Gift” is less complicated, but has its own twists. The word traces in English to about 1175 to mean “The action of giving, an instance of the same; a giving, bestowal … as a gift, gratuitously, for nothing,” the OED says. But here’s “gift’s” dirty little secret: In Old English, the OED says, “gift” was “recorded only in the sense ‘payment for a wife.’” A dowry. You gave a “gift” not out of the goodness of your heart, but out of obligation: You needed to buy a wife with cattle, gold, or other tangible (more valuable?) property.

Go back even further, and the American Heritage Dictionary Indo-European Roots Appendix will give you “ghabh-” (“to give or receive”), whose “derivatives include give, able, malady, prohibit, duty, and endeavor.” The gift can be good or bad. “Ghabh” itself comes from a Sanskrit word for hand or forearm.

When you give a “gift” (or, if you must, “gift” something), it is customary to hide the contents with a covering. But it wasn’t until 1935 that the verb “gift-wrap” showed up, possibly invented by American shopkeepers. The OED’s first citation is from the journal American Speech, which itself noted in early 1936 that “During the holiday season many department stores advertised, ‘We Gift-Wrap Here.’” The noun “gift-wrapping” followed in 1949; the adjective “gift-wrapped” didn’t appear until 1964, the OED says, though childhood memories beg to differ.

Now that most of the holidays are over, you may be thinking about whether to pass some of your acquisitions to someone else. Here’s where “gift” stands out: You can “regift” something, but if you “represent” something, you’re doing something else entirely: You’re acting on behalf of someone. (When you buy a “present,” you are, in a sense, “representing” the person you plan to “present” it to, but let’s not stretch this too far.)

You can, however, “re-present” something. “Re-present” (with the accent on the second syllable of “present”) has meant “give back” since at least 1564, the OED says, when it was used this way: “We are..encouraged, wythout feare, bodelye to represent and returne vnto him such liuely fruites of his grace.” But, to avoid confusion, you need the hyphen in “re-present” the way you need one in “re-create” to mean “create again” and not “play.”
“Re-present” has escaped being turned into “regift”—so far. You should “re-present” something only by returning it. Don’t pass it on.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.